Leaders in the new Southern Baptist environmental movement were careful Monday to avoid criticizing fellow Southern Baptists still skeptical of climate change, while at the same time pushing them to have greater concern for the environment.
"This is a journey for each of us and Southern Baptists are at different points in this journey," said Jonathan Merritt, national spokesperson for the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative, during a media teleconference.
"I want to say that we have the greatest respect for Southern Baptist brothers and sisters who are not at this time signatory of this initiative," assured the 25-year-old son of former Southern Baptist Convention president James Merritt and student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. "There is plenty of room for justified disagreement."
Merritt and other speakers were cautious to not spark unnecessary arguments over specific policies by refusing to answer any questions related to legislations or recommendations on how to cut greenhouse gas emissions. They explained that they are not experts on policies and that the declaration was simply meant to mobilize Southern Baptists to be more engaged on environmental issues.
The declaration, "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change," was released Monday signed by the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Rev. Frank Page, as well as seminary presidents, megachurch pastors and former SBC presidents. The grassroots campaign is the first of its kind in the SBC and encourages congregations to be greater advocates for environmental protection.
However, influential SBC leader Dr. Richard Land did not sign the declaration because he believes as president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission he is obliged to follow the denomination's official position on public policy as determined by the SBC meeting each year.
"The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has a Convention-assigned role to express the consensus of Southern Baptists on public policy matters when they have reached such consensus," Land said in a statement. "If the ERLC asserted Southern Baptists were in a different place on an issue than they actually were, we would lose the trust of Southern Baptists, and we would rapidly lose our credibility in Washington as well.
"Consequently, in our Convention-assigned role to share faithfully with Washington and other public policy venues where the Convention is on an issue, it would be misleading and unethical of the ERLC to promote a position at variance with the Convention's expressly stated positions," the SBC's public policy head explained.
At the denomination's 2007 annual meeting, Southern Baptist leaders arrived at their latest statement on global warming, which questioned the belief that humans are largely to be blamed for climate change and warned that increased regulations on greenhouse gases will hurt the poor.
But signers of the declaration contend that current evidence for global warming is "substantial," and that potential results are too grave to wait for perfect understanding on whether and how much humans are contributing to the warming of the earth.
"We believe our current denominational resolutions and engagement with these issues have often been too timid," the statement said. "Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed. We can do better."
Signatories of the declaration include Dr. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; the Rev. Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church and former SBC President (2002-2004); and the Rev. James Merritt, pastor of Cross Pointe Church and former SBC president (2000-2002).
The Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, reflected on the declaration: "This is more than a small increment. It is a large step for some people who have stepped into a void that needed to be filled," he said to The Christian Post Tuesday.
"I think it's very significant, courageous, groundbreaking and it's this crack in this dam that has been pulling back millions of people who dare to think differently," said Cizik, who is often seen as the evangelical spokesperson for creation care. "So it's cracking that wall of silence on this issue and for that I applaud Jonathan Merritt and all the others."